Biden must explain what he’s doing to free US hostages held in Russia

Biden must explain what he’s doing to free US hostages held in Russia
Biden must explain what he’s doing to free US hostages held in Russia

An increasing number of Americans are being imprisoned in Russia without due process, and President Biden needs to explain what his administration is doing to get them out.

That’s why we’re calling on the White House to provide Congress with a classified briefing on the situation. We’re doing this because the State Department must clarify how many American citizens and permanent residents are languishing behind bars in Russia.

The State Department claims the information changes daily, but that’s not a good enough answer. Our government is duty-bound to protect hard-working Americans from being wrongfully detained by foreign powers abroad. The very fact that there are US citizens detained in Russia without due process — not even including that the State Department cannot tell us how many — is a stinging indictment of the president.

Some of these individuals have been detained for months, while others have been away from home for years. Their absence has left a hole in the hearts of their families and friends.

Consider, for instance, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Last month marked one year since Gershkovich, the son of Jewish refugees who fled the Soviet Union, has been imprisoned in Russia.

Gershkovich is accused of espionage — a demonstrably false allegation that is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-running campaign of propaganda against the United States.

Contrary to whatever false claims are manufactured by Russian intelligence, Gershkovich is not a spy. He is a hostage, taken by Putin in an attempt to punish the United States for opposing his illegal war in Ukraine. And like any host, he’s been denied due process.

He has been accused of espionage, but not formally tried or put on trial. Instead, Gershkovich is held in Russia’s notorious Lefortovo Prison, the site of some of the most gross executions of the Stalinist era.

Gershkovich is kept in isolation 23 hours a day in a small cell. According to Wall Street Journal editor Paul Beckett, “the hour that he’s not in his cell, he gets to walk around a tiny courtyard about the same size as his cell.”

Unfortunately, Gershkovich’s plight appears unlikely to conclude anytime soon. In March, Russia extended its detention for a fifth time. We need answers as to why attempts to secure Gershkovich’s freedom have failed.

Gershkovich is not the only American citizen imprinted in Russia. However, even one American wrongfully held captive is too many.

Outside of not knowing how many Americans are imprinted in Russia, Congress also needs to know whether American citizens are becoming targets for foreign adversaries in hopes that the US government will cut a deal for their return.

Over the past four years, President Biden has dangerously emboldened America’s enemies by showing a willingness to give away more than can be received in return through negotiations.

The Biden administration, for example, bent over backward to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. In February 2022, Griner was arrested in Russia on charges of smuggling hash oil.

By December, the White House secured Griner’s release by agreeing to deport to Russia Viktor Bout — a notorious arms trafficker known as the “Merchant of Death.” Bout, who supplied weapons to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, was serving a US prison sentence for conspiracy to kill American citizens and officials.

Although securing Griner’s release was admirable, the trade was made even as other US citizens imprisoned in Russia, most notably Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel, were left out of the deal. Another example is when the Biden administration released $6 billion of Iran’s frozen funds in exchange for five American hosts last fall. These actions taken under President Biden’s leadership set a dangerous precedent by signaling that American citizens could be hostile to pressure the US government into making concessions.

We fear that Iran, Venezuela, Hamas and other adversaries have learned this lesson only all too well.

Brian Mast represents Florida’s 21st District and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. French Hill represents Arkansas’s 2nd District and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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